Thoughts on Labour Solidarity

Among my earliest memories are two TV commercials. I vividly recall the
Alka-Seltzer Man commercial—I hid behind a chair whenever it appeared. I also
have clear memory of a commercial that included as a sung refrain the phrase:
“Look For the Union Label”. This was long before the ILGWU song and ad of the 1970s. Growing up in the Sault in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, support for the rights of workers to share in the wealth they produce was not something strange or radical—but a part of normal life.

Similarly there was a underlying principle that all of us who grew up
in my neighbourhood understood—Picket Lines mean don’t cross. There didn’t have to be popular education initiatives. If a union was on strike decent people didn’t cross the picket line.

There was an assumed sense of solidarity that supported collective action
by individual initiative. A formal boycott didn’t have to be called. If the dairy workers went out, milk from that dairy wasn’t purchased. Alternatively, if there was a union contract in place one purchased the product made by union members.

There were other forms of social solidarity—making casseroles for families
with a new baby or dealing with death cut across ethnic and class lines and were clear expressions of this tapestry. However, undercutting the ability of workers to organise to obtain better working conditions was something just not considered. I am sure that this view was influenced by growing up in a family whose faith lead to social action. In the broader Christian context there are certain radical ideals that challenge us. Some of this is expressed in creedal or doctrinal statements, others in scripture.

A New Creed, a United Church of Canada statement, is one of the clearest
statements of a justice focused faith. It has echoes of the Apostle’s Creed, yet it
is a contemporary statement of the responsibilities of living out a faith one has
freely embraced. This call for justice is very general but helps provide a framework
for knowing what side of the struggle one should be one:

We are not alone,
we live in God’s world.

We believe in God:
who has created and is creating,
who has come in Jesus,
the Word made flesh,
to reconcile and make new,
who works in us and others
by the Spirit.

We trust in God.

We are called to be the Church:
to celebrate God’s presence,
to live with respect in Creation,
to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil,
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope.

In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.

We are not alone.

Thanks be to God.

Within the Roman Catholic tradition one finds a very clear doctrinal statement as to what side of a worker/owner God is likely to one. “Defrauding the workingman of his wages” is, in the Roman Catholic tradition, one of the “Four Sins that Cry to Heaven”.

One finds in shared scripture clear indications of what is expected by those seeking to live in harmony with divine will. In Isaiah 58:1 – 11 we read about worship that meets the divine ideal, active seeking challenging injustice, including unfair treatment of workers, hunger, homelessness and violence. The public expression of faith isn’t that of fasting or prayer, but of compassion and justice:

“Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the house of Jacob their sins.

For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.

‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.

Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying on sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD ?

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?

Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.

Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,

and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.

The LORD will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail. (NIV)

Ideals of social solidarity, memories of a commercial from my early childhood,
basic demands of my faith—all these come to mind whenever I see a picket line.
Not honouring a picket line can result in some personal consequences but crossing them undermines the basic ideals of shared social responsibility.

I’ve watched members of CUPW cross picket lines to deliver mail. I’ve watched members of USWA cross another union’s picket lines because they were not a part of the striking bargaining unit. When union members don’t show the basic solidarity of not crossing picket lines it is not surprising that unions are seen as less relevant than in the past. Without individuals expressing solidarity collective action is weakened, the quality of life for all is less secure.

From looking cereal boxes to find the union label (Kellogg’s cereals do) to paying attention to strikes and organising initiatives, taking a few moments to know what I am supporting in the marketplace does result in many small actions of solidarity.
We need to return to the basic ideal of social solidarity by not acting to weaken the voices of community collective struggle. Support those on the picket line. Support those trying to unionise. Support those who are exploring ways to hold onto the dream that all deserve to be treated with dignity and respect in the workplace. It is there that so much of the social progress that has occurred, from pensions to health care, was been born.

Buy union. Don’t cross picket lines. Organise where you work. Let us return
to the underlying radicalism of the stuffy conservative Christian-tinged ‘50s.

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